ED­MON­TON, Al­berta — The leaves are start­ing to change color around the NHL play­off bub­ble, and, at most, seven games re­main be­fore the Stan­ley Cup is handed out.

On Satur­day night, two of the league’s south­ern­most teams be­gin a Stan­ley Cup Fi­nal like none other when the Stars and Lightning face off in Game 1 in the Great White North. The Texas and Florida heat that would have been around in late May and June has been re­placed by a chill in the air with teams from non­tra­di­tional mar­kets vy­ing for hockey’s big­gest prize in the north­ern­most city in the NHL.

“We don’t know what the temperatur­e is out­side be­cause we’re never out­side, so it doesn’t come into play,” Stars gen­eral man­ager Jim Nill said from the con­fines of the bub­ble. “We’re 75, 80 de­grees here all the time, so it’s per­fect — per­fect en­vi­ron­ment.”

The teams would take any en­vi­ron­ment for a chance to win the Cup. Stars play­ers, coaches and staff have been here since July 27, and the Lightning joined them Sept. 5 af­ter spend­ing six weeks in Toronto and fly­ing cross-coun­try.

The Stars have waited since fin­ish­ing off the Golden Knights in Game 5 of the Western Con­fer­ence fi­nal Mon­day. The Lightning won the East on Thurs­day night by beat­ing the Is­lan­ders in Game 6 of that series on Anthony Cirelli’s over­time win­ner.

It’s a quick turn­around for the Lightning, who don’t mind that for this op­por­tu­nity.

“This is un­like any other Stan­ley Cup Fi­nal where we’d get days rest,” coach Jon Cooper said. “If you were go­ing to tell me, ‘Hey Coop, you get to play in the Stan­ley Cup Fi­nal, you’re only go­ing to get 45 hours to rest be­fore the game, but you’re go­ing to get to play in it,’ I’m tak­ing that all day.”

The Stars coach­ing staff prescouted each po­ten­tial op­po­nent, with Rick Bow­ness and as­sis­tant John Stevens div­ing into the Lightning the last few days.

“We’ll be well-pre­pared,” Bow­ness said. “There’ll be no sur­prises.”

This year is full of sur­prises. Af­ter the Lightning skated off with the Prince of Wales Tro­phy for win­ning the East, Blake Cole­man was asked about his jour­ney from be­ing traded in Fe­bru­ary with his preg­nant wife two weeks from giv­ing birth through to the bub­ble and said, “It’s been kind of crazy, but whose 2020 hasn’t been crazy?”

The series marks the first time in NHL his­tory that the fi­nal fea­tures two Rus­sian start­ing goal­tenders. The Lightning’s An­drei Vasilevski­y played in the fi­nal as a rookie in 2015, while the Stars’ An­ton Khu­dobin hadn’t started a play­off game un­til this year.

Niko­lai Khabibu­lin is the only Rus­sian goalie to win the Stan­ley Cup when he did so with the Lightning in 2004.

“I want both guys to win, but it’s im­pos­si­ble,” Khabibu­lin said. “I know both guys, so I wish them both well.”

If the Lightning win it all, Vasilevski­y, de­fense­man Vic­tor Hed­man and for­wards Bray­den Point and Nikita Kucherov all have strong cases to earn the Conn Smythe Tro­phy as the play­off MVP. For the Stars, it could be Khu­dobin or cap­tain Jamie Benn, and their lead­ing scorer is ac­tu­ally de­fense­man Miro Heiska­nen.

The 21-year-old Finn is play­ing be­yond his years and skat­ing cir­cles around de­fend­ers.

“When I was young kid, I was skat­ing out­doors, so that’s where it’s com­ing from,” Heiska­nen said. “I try to use it as much as I can and try to skate a lot with the puck and with­out it, so it helps in my of­fen­sive game and de­fen­sive game.” ✶


Stars left wing Jamie Benn flips a back­hand shot past Lightning goal­tender An­drei Vasilevski­y dur­ing a game in Jan­uary. Both teams in the fi­nal will start Rus­sian goalies.

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